In the stone buildings of Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, near the track on which the young Jim Thorpe set his records as a student at the Carlisle Indian School, officers on their way to the top attend the Army War College. The students wear civilian clothes to de-emphasize difference in rank and to foster an “academic” atmosphere. Their instructors wear their ribbons and olive green. One of them is Dandridge Malone, a colonel of the infantry.

In a different life, Malone might have made his name as the author of country-and-western lyrics, because he has a gift for expressing home truths with the bittersweet, half-mawkish grace typical of the Nashville songs. He has written a number of articles in just that manner about the nature of the military life. Once when Malone was speaking to a group of officers a young lieutenant asked him what a “soldier” was. In response, Malone prepared and narrated a 40-minute tape recording called “The Soldier.” Against a background of C&W-style music, and with sound effects, Malone tells the story of a young recruit, on his way to boot camp, through the tearful farewells to family and friends; the anxiety and confusion at the training schools; the friendships, the coarseness, the constant reassignments and promotions; the compromises and satisfactions of military marriage; and on to Vietnam, through the fire fights, the fear again, the deaths of friends; survival and return; the first glimpse of children he has not seen for a year, the first embrace of his wife, and then:

“… a supper of who knows who cares what, and more talk and bedtime and kids asleep, and an endless night of soft talk, moonlight, touches, and sweet tears of thankfulness and the pent-up love of a thousand thoughts and dreams—a clear blue morning, a bright-yellow school bus, an apple-green housecoat and hot black coffee— elbows up on the kitchen table, and the first tentative plans for the next duty station and the next move, and—

“—and if all these wondrous things,” Malone drawls at the end, country guitar twanging in the background, “which thousands of us share in whole or part, can, by the mindless logic of a soulless computer, programmed by a witless pissant ignorant of effect, be called just another job…then, by God, I’m a sorry, suck-egg mule.”

The significance of the tape lies, by design, in the phrase “just another job.” It is Malone’s way of suggesting that the qualities that count in military leadership will always be fundamentally different from those that are rewarded elsewhere. The soldier’s task is different—he is asked to kill and to expose himself to death—and the motivations of men who do so are based on requirements that do not exist in most other “jobs.”

The essential difference is the focus of loyalty. In the civilian world, under the theories of John Locke and Adam Smith, the proper unit of social analysis is the individual. He acts alone; he is expected to follow where self-interest leads. While untrammeled self-interest is often pernicious in the civilian world, in many cases it is constructive. A salesman advances his firm’s interests by advancing his own. An entrepreneur in a competitive market helps many other people (his customers, his employees) by helping himself. That is almost never true in the military. “The military is an allowable socialist meritocracy, existing to preserve a society of individuals,” says James Webb, a Naval Academy graduate who led troops in combat in Vietnam as a marine. “It is socialist in that the group is more important than the individual. It is a meritocracy in that the ways you relate to your unit are not based on monetary terms, but on values of performance that only matter within the unit and are meaningless outside.”

The effectiveness of a nation’s military depends finally on the creation of a series of human bonds. These are the bonds among the enlisted men in a fighting force; between the enlisted men and the officers who lead them; among the officers; and between the military as a whole and the nation it represents. Such bonds have no place in economic calculations or labor-market models, for they are built on such noneconomic qualities as shared experience and mutual sacrifice, which create a sense of mutual respect and trust. Without them, the military cannot function. Soldiers will risk death only when they feel a bond of trust and responsibility with their fellow soldiers. Units will follow only leaders who have earned their trust through demonstrations of honor and willingness to sacrifice for the good of their men. A nation’s military, especially in a democracy, can endure the hardships of war only if it feels tied to the nation by a sense of common purpose and respect. Without those bonds, it cannot cohere. The creation of these bonds has been imperiled within the military by what is known as the managerial ethic, and by the officer corps’s “careerist” emphasis on getting ahead, no matter what the cost.

Battlefield Bonds

In chronicles of combat through the ages, certain elements have consistently distinguished the units that prevailed from those that were shattered and lost. Those are the bonds of shared experience, identity, and trust that give cohesion to men in small groups and make them willing to sacrifice for one another and to follow their leader. The novels of James Jones are full of references to the dogfaces who hate war, hate the army, hate the generals, but will go out and die for the men in the company. “Soldiers fight because they love one another within that squad,” the army chief of staff, General Edward Meyer, said in an interview. The common saying is, No soldier takes a hill for his nation, he takes it for his buddies.

In effective fighting groups, these bonds must run not only among the soldiers, but also between the members of a unit and a leader who has shown that he will share the hardships they endure. William L. Hauser, who retired as a colonel after 25 years in the military, has written with great perception about the inner cohesion of the army. He recalls the instructions that Field Marshal William Slim, a British hero of the Burma campaign in World War II, gave his officers: “I tell you, as officers, that you will not eat, sleep, smoke, sit down, or lie down until your soldiers have had a chance to do these things. If you will hold to this, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. If you do not, I will break you in front of your regiments [emphasis in original].”

In their book, Crisis in Command, two former officers, Richard A. Gabriel and Paul L. Savage, say that “the cohesion of a combat unit is to a large extent a function of the degree to which combat troops perceive that their officers are willing to fight and die with them [emphasis in original].” They point out that in World War II, German troops maintained their discipline and cohesion even when their cause was obviously doomed. It is no coincidence, they say, that one third of all German generals had been killed in combat, and that the German officer corps as a whole had a higher casualty rate than did the enlisted men.

In an attempt to define more precisely the qualities a leader must display to produce trust and cohesion among his troops, a team from the Army War College interviewed majors who had led rifle platoons in Vietnam, asking them to name the values that counted in combat. Four qualities stood out, described by Colonel Malone as follows:

Candor: It’s more than openness, it’s saying the things that need to be said without a lot of words, without an under-the-table agenda, without a lot of Yessir and Nossir. The stakes are too high, and time is too short to screw around with anything but the essence and the truth.

“The battlefield is the most honest place in the world. The candor of the battlefield is why cohesiveness forms there so quickly and permanently, and why lies told there are punished not with gossip but with action.

Commitment: This is mainly commitment to people, rather than to an idea. For the soldier, the main commitment is to that ‘ole buddy,’ and after that to the small group of people in his squad. There’s some commitment to the larger unit and a little to the nation, but nowhere near as much as to the buddy and the squad. You see it in the Medal of Honor winners. They’re mainly men who jump on grenades, and they do it because they are committed to that small group. You go get your wounded, because they’re your buddies.

Courage: A guy always has a choice about taking a risk. He can lie there behind a log and there’s nothing you can do about it. No one can make him get up. On the battlefield, the risk he must take is a total-loss risk, and yet, for various reasons, the soldier himself decides that the total loss risk is his best choice. Deciding to take that risk is courage. It is the ultimate definition of a soldier. Courage is contagious. He did it, I can do it. It’s not that they want to do it, but they will do it.

Competence: This is the oldest value on the battlefield. You can have candor and commitment, but if you are not competent you won’t survive. On the battlefield, competence establishes the pecking order, which may or may not correspond to rank or the chain of command, depending on the competence of those in the chain.”

There are parts of the civilian world that operate on similar principles of shared loyalty and shared risk. Families, football teams, political campaigns, churches, small-town doctors, all depend for their success on peacetime versions of the same traits. The example of these groups confirms that the qualities that really count for their, or the military’s, success cannot be “bought,” the way a new running back or a petroleum-law specialist might be, simply with a better contract and more attractive fringe and retirement benefits. The financial incentives matter, but by themselves they will fail to create the human bonds, as surely as big-city school systems fail when they try to “purchase” a more dedicated corps of teachers by sweetening their contract with the teachers union. Wherever military service, or medical or musical service, is judged purely by the economist’s calculation of marginal trade-offs and maximized self-interest, it erects a structure of values inimical to the required goals. That is at the heart of the military complaint about “managerial” defense.

Managed to Death

To hear many soldiers tell it, the only thing that’s wrong with America’s military leadership is that the “managers” from the Pentagon have stuck their fingers in the soup. Just as managerial logic often leads to simplistic judgments about the “efficiency” of various weapons and strategies, it also tends to overlook the importance of the intangible, human factors that are difficult to measure scientifically but always count in combat. Leaders will seize the initiative in combat, soldiers say, only if they’ve been delegated true operating authority by superiors who know that there’s a risk the combat leader will screw up. The battlefield leader senses that he’s been entrusted with responsibility; on the whole, that sense of trust will inspire him to do a better job. An army that delegates real responsibility to the leaders on the scene will have some incompetents and even some Lieutenant Calleys, but it will move farther, faster in combat than one that has taught its officers to do only what they are told.

Centralized control has been a permanent feature of the Soviet army, as of other parts of Russian life, but for the American military it is a self-inflicted wound, arising from the managerial logic. One former navy officer tells about a friend who was commanding a ship during a rescue operation. His superiors were hectoring him on the radio, asking what ships were showing up to the left of him, and what he saw on his right. Finally the officer grabbed an ensign and sent him below to work the radio. “Tell them you’re me,” he said. “Tell them anything they want to hear. I’ve got a job to do.” The story was obviously meant to suggest that this was the way a real leader would respond but that there were not many of them left. “What about the young officers who think that’s the way life’s supposed to be?” said the man who told the story. “What are they going to do 20 years from now when somebody shoots at their ship and they can’t get through on the radio to ask what to do?” There was a Gresham’s law of the officer corps, he said. The only ones who stayed under these circumstances were those who didn’t really understand what “leadership” meant, First, they made up 10 percent of the officer corps, then 50, then 90, and eventually there was no other model for young officers to follow. Indeed, he said, the most dangerous development in the officer corps was that it was driving out the very people it most urgently needed to keep.

One marine colonel described the pernicious effects of another step toward “efficiency” at his base—the centralized mess hall, where marines would eat in shifts. It might make sense on the cost chart, he said, but how would his men learn to feed themselves in the field? “The worst thing about it is,” he said, “that the cooks won’t have to spend all day with the guys who eat their food. That helps remind them, and everybody else, that they all have to perform as part of a team.”

In his office at the Army War College, Dandrige Malone has this written on his blackboard:

“Things worth thinking about on the difference between leadership and management:

“• Management is the ‘physics’ of things, but leadership is the ‘chemistry’ of people.

“• When, in war, men must die (and in war, some must), they can’t be managed to death … they must be led there.

“• ‘Sacrifice’ has an honored place in leadership, but not in management … and that may be the nub of our problem.”

James Webb has written: “Management is not leadership. Management can be approached as an academic discipline; one can be taught to analyze data, to weigh alternatives, and to make a decision. Leadership is something else. It is a subjective chemistry filled with human variables. It takes more than the ability to analyze data to make a leader; one must be able to motivate those who are being led, to reach their emotions through command presence, force, and example. It is much easier to educate a manager than to develop a leader.”

Major by 30 or Out

Persuasive as the soldier’s complaints may be, they tend to underplay a further distortion of the military spirit. While parts of the officer corps have resented the incursions made into military values by the “managerial” style, many other elements have cooperated in the process, remaking themselves in the model of go-get-’em business executives.

The crucial word for this phenomenon is “careerism,” which means, in essence, the desire to be, rather than the desire to do. It is the desire to have rank, rather than to use it; the pursuit of promotion without a clear sense of what to do with a higher rank once one has attained it. The military is naturally a fertile ground for careerism, since there is a single, visible hierarchy of rank on which all men are placed—especially in the peacetime army, when there is no test of combat performance. Careerism may be observed, in embryo, at the service academies, where the most successful military careers have their start. Taking in young men and women at an age when their characters cannot have fully formed, deliberately intending (as no private college does) to reshape their personalities, the academies most often succeed in imbuing their graduates with the passion to worship what Maureen Mylander, in her book about the military, called the “God of Class Standing.” Academy graduates tend to fall into two categories: the Military Men, with the culture of arms in their very chromosomes; and the formlessly ambitious ones, as eager to become chairman of the board if they leave the service as to make general if they stay. The cheating scandals that “shock” Annapolis, West Point, and Colorado Springs every few years are one symptom of the amorphous ambition for place that the academies implant. The institutions that most closely resemble them are the nation’s “best” law schools.

One of the most important propulsive forces behind careerism is the policy of “up and out,” which was introduced into the military shortly after World War II as part of an effort to create a younger, tougher officer corps. Officers knew the schedule: they became captains in their early twenties, majors in their early thirties, colonels in their late forties. If they weren’t keeping up with the crowd, they were out. “Up or out” greatly magnified the careerist emphasis on holding a position rather than doing a job. Even the most dedicated soldier knew that if he were too indifferent to the imperatives of promotion, he might not be able to stay and do the things—commanding troops, flying planes—that had attracted him to the service in the first place. As a result, a rich lore has grown up in the military about the proper steps in the dance of promotion. In Self-Destruction, “Cincinnatus,” a pseudonym for an army officer, writes that after the Korean War:

“‘Duty, honor, and country’ was replaced by the need to be in the right job at the right time. The news spread throughout all levels of the army. Careerism, rather than dedication to the welfare of one’s men, was the way to get ahead. Such career advancement was best enhanced by ‘ticket-punching’ procedures: be sure to go to jump school so you could wear airborne wings; pick up Ranger tabs to wear on your uniform sleeves; command a unit as quickly as possible— but not for too long, for that might prevent moving on to the next requirement of staff duty. Secure a coveted assignment in the Pentagon. Seek overseas duty…. Do not make mistakes. They hurt. Do nothing rather than commit an error, and at all times ‘cover your ass.’ ”

A man who served in the air force at Wright-Patterson Field describes the way one of his ambitious colleagues played this game while still a lieutenant: “There was a Junior Officer’s Council at the base, the kind of thing that was supposed to build morale, and so forth. It didn’t really do anything, but after a while you had to get into it to have something to put on your personnel records and get a good OER [Officer Efficiency Report]. If you showed any interest in the organization, you could be an officer of the council, and there was one super ambitious guy who ended up as president. When he got in, he had the council commission a study on how people got promoted to major ‘below the zone’—ahead of the normal schedule. The promotion lists tell you which guys are below the zone, so he got their names, and sent out questionnaires to them, asking how they did it. He found out the common traits— and then he tried to follow them. He even became a deacon in the Baptist Church because that looked good on the OER. He did make major below the zone, and lieutenant colonel. I understand he’s burned out today. The sad thing is that the guy did some very promising work, but he would never follow up on it because his whole purpose in life was to get promoted.”

The careerist emphasis has several effects in the peacetime military. The most fundamental is the perversion of the essential bond between officers and men. An ambitious officer with his eye ever on the promotion board will be tempted to use his men, rather than lead them; to avoid their risks, rather than share them; to rely on his rank to command their obedience, rather than winning their trust through example. Careerism also leads to the debasement of the Officer Efficiency Reports, the basic documents on which officers are judged for promotion. These have become so cheapened that any officer who is not rated “outstanding” has, in effect, seen his career torpedoed. “Commanding officers know that good scores make for happy subordinates and that bad scores, rather than serving notice of temporary failings, can wreck careers,” Nicholas Lemann has written. “So the maximum score of 200 is common and 185 is a disaster. if you average below 195, it’s thought impossible to make major.” The desire to “max” the efficiency rating is notable for promoting a please-the-boss mentality, or, as it is often known among officers, the “zero defects” approach. Beyond that, the OERs have a devastating symbolic impact, demonstrating how little value the military places on honest, unpleasant news. Worse, they breed contempt for those who do get promoted, since everyone involved knows that the standards of judgment are systematically warped. When junior officers compare the men who make general and admiral with those who do not, the lesson they are most likely to carry away is that too much character and honesty can be handicaps to men on the way up.

Careerism leads to a trivialization of the officer’s function as well, through the phenomenon of “ticket punching.” The philosophy of the ticket punch is that an officer on his way up should have a balance of experience. No man should be a general (or colonel, or major) who has not commanded troops. In theory, this reflects a sensible emphasis on the real business of the military command. As practiced, it defies all rules of military effectiveness. Since the U.S. army has a far higher proportion of officers than most other forces, they end up elbowing each other for “command slots.” The army’s chief of staff, General Edward C. Meyer, ordered in 1980 that command tours should average 30 months in length, even if that meant that some officers wouldn’t have a chance to lead troops. Until that time, the military’s solution to the problem had been a classic example of serving internal needs rather than the standards of real performance. The answer had been the 6- or 12-month command slot, which gave everybody a chance to punch his ticket but absolutely destroyed cohesion and loyalty between officers and men.

Command is not the only punch needed on the ticket. Ambitious officers must also go to the staff schools, get graduate degrees, prove they have the “breadth” for big assignments. The result, according to Edward Luttwak, a perceptive defense analyst, is “an officer corps that is systematically diverted from its proper professional focus by all these other things. What they give us now, we don’t need. What civilian society is not competent to manage is, precisely, conflict. The military has become civilianized in the sense of emulating, at higher cost, things the civilians can do better—but not concentrating on the things the civilians cannot do, which are to train combat leaders, to study tactics and to pursue strategies.”

I asked Luttwak what response he got when he made these points to officers, as he has done. “Many of them agree, but they feel there are overwhelming forces against them. A military that has come under the domination of civilian micro-managers turns to managers of its own in defensive reaction. A military with serious personnel problems must devote more of its time to personnel management. A military with shortages of supplies must pay attention to resource management. And a military that shares the national passion for high technology is drawn into engineering ambition. Also there is a demand for these civilian skills by the officers themselves. You can’t get an M.A. or a Ph.D. for being a good leader, so you don’t have prestige. Under the ‘up or out’ promotion system, the military insists on having an education that is of some value in the civilian job market. If they were teaching what they should, it would have no value in the civilian market.”

Few spectacles are more depressing than the modern officer corps in the nonmilitary part of its training. Somehow, in setting the balance between Renaissance men and pure warriors, between skilled managers and gifted leaders of troops, the military has not got any of it quite right. It is clear, from talking with officers and seeing who gets ahead, that a pure tough-talking commander is not going much higher than colonel—not unless he’s taken some time off for a graduate degree in international relations or physics. But as far as I can tell, the function of those degrees is almost entirely to give the officers credentials, rather than to prepare them in any useful way for their jobs. When their dissertations and their War College papers move off military subjects to more “broadening” themes, they are usually superficial and vapid. The courses on nonmilitary subjects tend to be lickety-split surveys of every topic imaginable, the main effect of which is to teach the officers the names of assorted revolutions, or factions of communism, or divisions of the executive branch, rather than any useful way to think about them. Why waste their time this way at all?

The ideal is the scholar-warrior, the man of action incorporated in the man of thought. The reality, most of the time, is the dilettante, who cannot reasonably be expected to master physics, or history, or management as a sideline, but who is expected to touch these bases instead of concentrating on the subject he should know, which is the nature of war.

There is a further perversity to the system. While men who should be leaders and strategists have to pretend they are scholars or managers to get ahead, the smaller number of officers who are gifted at management and reflective thinking know that they won’t be promoted unless they can prove they’re warriors, too. It is as if an Olympic committee chose the contestants for every event—weight lifting, gymnastics, yachting, equestrian—on the basis of their overall score in the decathlon. One major who works on a service publication, a serious man who has found exactly the right job, told me that he was trying to decide whether he should stay at his job and resign himself to being stuck at his current rank or try for a transfer to field command so that he could be considered for promotion. “in a sound military, you need three talents—the manager, the leader in the sense of ‘a leader of men,’ and the theorist,” says William Lind. “Right now the manager totally dominates the leader is tolerated up to field grade, and there is no place at all for the theorist. Clausewitz would not have lasted two weeks at West Point.” As Ward Just wrote ten years ago: “There has never been a Clausewitz in the American army because the writing of Vom Kriege [On War] took time and serious thought.”

My Lai Fallout

The forces of careerism are pernicious enough in a peacetime force. In Vietnam, their effect was catastrophic. Each pathology of the peacetime army had its equivalent on the battlefield. The equivalent of inflated Officer Efficiency Reports, for example, was the promiscuous distribution of military decorations in Vietnam. By the beginning of 1971, more than 1,270,000 medals had been awarded to American soldiers, roughly 70 percent as many as were awarded during all of World War II, when 10 million men served. The equivalent of the West Point cheating scandal was the officers’ systematic lying about enemy dead, victories, civilian carnage. The purest and most destructive form of careerism was the wartime version of “ticket punching.” German officers are with their units for three to four years at a time; in Vietnam, officers were on their way after six months. “Cincinnatus” recounts tale after tale of the effect of ticket punching, including these reflections from an artillery officer: “Vietnam was the only war we had. Career development purposes were served by it; ticket punching helped. You needed a combat tour, you got one. The main thing was to have (at the time I was there) the right ribbons on your chest when the war ended. The fallacy, though, was that if you were really effective as a combat leader, you got six months. If you were the village idiot and couldn’t do anything except to fly around in a helicopter and ask the troops if they were getting their mail, you got six months. The justification for the six-month command had, in reality, nothing to do with ‘burn-out’ but was followed in order to get as many people rotated through command slots as possible, so after the war the army would have a lot of people for a long time who had ‘commanded’ in combat.”

Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage emphasize the contrast between the heavy casualties in the German officer corps in World War II and the American officers’ record in Vietnam, where a total of four generals died violent deaths, one from a sniper’s fire while riding a jeep, and three others in helicopter crashes. “Cincinnatus” adds:

“Grunts saw very few officers sharing their dangers with them. Most of them were Second and First Lieutenants who often were ex-enlisted men who had gone to OCS for a commission, or they were ex-college men who had stayed out of service for as long as possible under the aegis of ROTC…. Senior captains, majors, and above were more likely to be the career-oriented ‘lifers,’ doing their fighting from their ‘eye in the sky’ command and control helicopters. From 2,000 feet up they could direct their units in relative safety, rather than having their ‘ass in the grass’ on the ground.”

(In interviews, a number of officers suggested that this principle could be raised to another level of abstraction. If soldiers are more likely to fight for officers who share their risks on the field, the military will more competently and bravely defend the nation if it senses that its sacrifices are honored and its special needs understood. That was not the case in Vietnam, where the military understood that it was sent on dirty duty, nor has it been the case since then, when officers have felt that the public does not really want to hear about their problems.)

Whatever damage the war in Vietnam did to the self-confidence and certainty of the nation, it did that much, squared, to the professional soldier. However much the soldiers may complain about not having been “allowed” to win the war, most of them seem to recognize that the war both caused and revealed considerable sickness at the center of their corps. At least some of them have responded by looking for the way back to proper military principles.

The nadir occurred in 1970, when the My Lai massacre was unveiled. To the public, “My Lai” became a shorthand expression for “butchery” and “brutality”; within the military, Lieutenant Calley’s behavior was less shocking than the widespread complicity of the professional officer corps in condoning and covering up the event. In addition to his official report on the cover-up, Lieutenant General William L. Peers submitted a secret memorandum to William Westmoreland, by then the army’s Chief of Staff, suggesting that something had gone fundamentally wrong with the values and ethics of the officer corps. Although carefully phrased, it left no doubt of Peers’s conclusion that officers had learned to lie, had forgotten the rules of leadership and trust, were promoted on grounds that were militarily corrupt. Within weeks, Westmoreland turned to the Army War College and instructed it to conduct a “Study on Military Professionalism” to explore the questions Peers had raised. Two and a half months later the War College submitted its results, a rich portrait of an army that had sacrificed its military values to those of the career rat race.

The initial reaction within the army confirmed the report’s worst conclusions. The Peers memorandum, the My Lai report, and the War College study were all ordered classified. Peers’s own career was effectively at an end. Shortly afterward, the military faced bombardment from a number of books and articles about the corruption of the officer corps. Lieutenant Colonel Edward King’s The Death of the Army, Major Josiah Bunting’s The Lionheads, Colonel David Hackworth’s article, “A Soldier’s Disgust,” all appeared in 1972, their criticism the more wounding since it came from men who obviously cherished the military ideal.

Yet the struggle for reform inside the military went on. Colonel Dandridge Malone recounts the steps that followed the Study on Military Professionalism:

“In 1971 we did a leadership study of 50,000 army leaders. The main thing they said was that they wanted their bosses to be straight with them, and wanted the opportunity to be straight themselves. In 1972 we began to implement some of the findings. In 1973, a very interesting thing happened at Leavenworth [at The Army Command and General Staff College—an important stop for the ticket-puncher]. Some of the majors started to talk about things ethical. They went to the commandant, a very hot guy, and asked for a small session. He said, let’s do it for the whole class, twelve hundred guys or so. They brought in 20 generals, 20 civilian experts on ethics, 20 straphangers like me. They had a big session, then broke up, sent one of each group to the classes. Things happened. One general was saying that he was right on top of things in his units, that no one would dare submit a falsified report there. A young major stood up and said, General, I was in your division, and I routinely submitted falsified reports. The general’s response was, When you speak to a general officer, stand at attention. That was happening all over the place. All but two of the generals were stuck bad. They were embarrassed, and when they left they started badmouthing the plan. They talked about the ‘ethics stuff,’ they called it ‘moralistic streaking.’ General Abrams was about to sack the whole thing. But then someone went to him and said, ‘What if we’d met apathy instead of emotion when we talked to our young officers about ethics?’ I think that’s what got the whole ‘reformation’ started. That’s when it got up its head of steam.”

Through the late seventies, there were more “ethics” courses at the staff schools, more articles from senior officers about rediscovering professional values. A “Trust and Confidence” program was introduced, which emphasized that an officer’s word was his bond and that he shouldn’t have to sign endless forms, like a man applying to a bondsman for bail, certifying that he would carry out his obligations and pay his bills. It is hard to pick up a military journal these days without coming across an article like “New Leadership for a New Air Force” or “On Fostering Integrity.” Much of this is posturing, and it has not begun to eclipse the careerist pressures in the force. Most of today’s generals and admirals are men who got there because they were procurement wizards, or adept at punching their tickets, or careful not to make waves. Simply on a human level, I was struck by how little “edge” most of the generals seemed to have to their characters, how bland most of them seemed, not only in comparison with the captains and colonels beneath them, but also compared to successful men and women in other fields—politicians, doctors, businessmen, teachers, writers. When younger officers contemplate their example, a great number probably decide to emulate them. But more and more seem to have begun to look for other paths, and in that reaction, I believe, lies the military’s hope for recreating the moral bonds on which its cohesion ultimately depends.

McNamara’s Heirs

Unfortunately, the “managerial” approach to the military goes beyond relationships between human beings. It has long since affected machines and the making of military plans. It is often associated, correctly, with Robert S. McNamara, who became secretary of defense under John Kennedy in 1961 and resigned under Lyndon Johnson in 1968. It is less correctly identified with the “systems analysts” whom McNamara brought with him to the Pentagon. Although the analysts, the “whiz kids,” rubbed nerves raw throughout the Pentagon, and although they added an economic accent to the rhetoric of defense, their lasting influence was far less significant than the impact of another group that came in under McNamara’s wing. These were the impresarios of high technology, who with McNamara’s blessing made the Research and Engineering division of the Pentagon the power center for decisions about new weapons, and who used the analysts’ economic calculations as cloaks for each new project they proposed.

The failing of managerial defense is usually described as its inability to distinguish between efficiency, in the economic or technological sense, and effectiveness on the battlefield. That covers the point, but too crudely. The real problem is the use of an oversimplified, one-dimensional form of analysis, often based on simulations and hypotheses, in place of more complicated judgments, based on data from combat or realistic tests, that take into account the eight or ten qualities that must be combined to make a weapon effective. The worst kind of management seeks a single optimum, a one-scale index of efficiency, like the mindless scales of “1 to 10” for grading a woman’s beauty or one to four stars for a movie’s appeal. For example, the huge, complex Trident submarine is “efficient” as a carrier of nuclear missiles, since each one will hold 24, compared to 16 for its predecessor, the Polaris. But a missile submarine’s effectiveness finally depends on its ability to escape detection and survive attack so that its missiles will be safe and available for use as a deterrent. By that standard, the Trident is a senseless step down in effectiveness, since it greatly reduces the number of hiding points among which the missiles are dispersed. When the conversion is complete, the United States will have gone from 41 Polaris submarines to about 20 Tridents. Because the Tridents are bigger, each of them may be more vulnerable to discovery by nonacoustic means (such as magnetic detection) than would smaller subs. The simplest kind of managerial logic has added many such weapons to our force.

Many of the fights McNamara chose are still good fights. The supply systems remain out of sync with one another. As of early 1981, the military stockpile contained enough Phoenix missiles to last about a day and a half in combat—and enough vanadium and chromium to last two years. The only difference between the Defense Supply Agency, which McNamara created in the early sixties, and the separate service supply bureaucracies it replaced often seems to be that its troubles are centralized, and therefore larger.

Each of the services is as parochial in defending its interests as ever. The army has built a new armored personnel carrier and the air force has built hundreds of assault transport planes. The new armored vehicle is larger than the ramp opening of the planes, so that planes cannot carry the infantry’s most important vehicle. The air force “owns” the Minuteman and Titan nuclear missiles that sit in silos, aimed at the Soviet Union, but the army is in charge of defending those silos against attack, whether from saboteurs or from enemy missiles. During the mid-seventies, when the supposed “vulnerability” of the missiles in their underground silos to enemy attack became a matter of first principle in nuclear planning, the air force developed its plans for a new, mobile “MX” missile without ever formally consulting the army about other means of defending the sites. To one proposal for the future of America’s nuclear force—getting rid of the silos and putting the missiles on ships and submarines—a frequent answer, advanced in dead earnest, is that this is too big a job to leave to the navy.


Since at least the early sixties, defense managers have predicted great things for new generations of “precision-guided munitions,” which are meant to take much of the worry and messiness out of war. One such weapon is a missile called the TOW (the acronym stands for “tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided”). The theory of its operation is that a soldier will stand and fire the missile at a far-off tank. By keeping the sight on the launcher aligned on the tank during the ten seconds or so of the missile’s flight, he can adjust the missile’s course as the tank maneuvers, theoretically ensuring a hit. These weapons are said to be marvelously “cost-effective,” since a missile that costs $7,000 can theoretically destroy a Soviet tank that costs half a million dollars.

“Anyone who likes the TOW has never seen a battlefield,” said one man who has studied the weapon. “To guide the thing, you have to stand exposed from here up”—motioning to the lower chest—”for at least ten seconds. The people who think these things up don’t realize that there’s all the difference in the world between a two-second exposure on the battlefield and ten seconds.”

Although the TOW has never been tested in combat, it is bulky enough that in wartime TOW gunners would probably not be able to protect themselves by lying down or hiding behind cover and still keep the missiles from hitting trees, bushes, or the ground. “To fire the TOW, you’ve got to stand there, practically naked,” a marine officer told me at Camp Pendleton. “A soldier’s just not going to do that.”

Those that have tried, tend to get killed. During the Yom Kippur War in the Mid-East in 1973, the Egyptians used a Soviet-built weapon call the Sagger, which is similar to the TOW. For the first two days of the war it wreaked havoc on Israeli tanks. Then the Israeli commanders got smart and simply assigned a gunner to pick off the Egyptian soldier setting up the Sagger. For all practical purposes, that was the end of the weapon’s usefulness.

Tom Kelly, a combat veteran of Vietnam, says, “Soldiers will throw a weapon away if they don’t have faith in it. The soldier is the guy making the ultimate decision on weapons systems, and he is going to throw it out if he can’t count on it. There was that Sheridan tank—you knew it was a coffin, so you wouldn’t stay in.”

The analytic error was to concentrate on one value only—the “probability of kill,” or Pk, for each shot from the TOW—and to ignore several others, such as the gunner’s ability to survive, and the rate at which he can fire missiles. The single-shot “Pk” means less than the rate of fire to a platoon that is facing not one tank at a time, but 50. By ignoring these complications, the managers and technologists spent hundreds of millions for a weapon that is likely to litter the ditches of the first battlefield where it is put to use. It is easy to sneer at this error, until you consider how much of modern life—college board scores, price/earnings ratios, presidential “approval” ratings—is run on similar reductionist principles.

The same mistake applies to the modern radar-guided missiles, which have added so much to the cost of modern fighter planes. When the missile is flying toward its target, the pilot must stay locked in a pattern with the other planes, flying a predictable course that lays him open to destruction from any other planes that happen to be in the area. (Most aerial combat involves large numbers of planes, instead of oneon-one duels.) In their haste to equip planes with these precision-guided missiles, the managers passed up the opportunity to refine a weapon that had proved, in combat in Israel and Vietnam, that it did work. This was the 20- millimeter air-to-air cannon, a gun of Korean War vintage, which left the pilot much freer to maneuver to safety, was hard for the enemy to spoof, and had a better overall probability of kill. Similarly, the high hopes attached to the TOW have preempted the effort—and the money—that might have been used for improving simpler antitank cannons, which soldiers could fire more quickly without exposing themselves to near-certain death.

Tom Kelly, the veteran of Vietnam who later worked as a civilian in the Pentagon, has described yet another precision-guided weapon called the Dragon. The guidance system, which consists of a heavy, shoulder-mounted sight, requires a soldier to stand very still, like a photographer taking a picture in dim light, while the Dragon is in flight, because any small movement is translated into larger variations in the missile’s course: “The TOW’s designed for long-range shots, but where in Europe are you going to get a 2,000-yard clear shot? So instead they have the Dragon, which is for shorter ranges. When they fire these things on the test range, a guy can guide it for a couple of hundred yards. Then he breathes, and the thing goes up and down in flight. Assuming that the ground is perfectly flat, he may recover in time to guide it back to the target, but if the ground is rough, it won’t make it. It turns out that what you really need to do it right is a guy who’s about five foot eight and weighs 250 pounds. There aren’t many people built like a fireplug.”

This managerial logic contributed to the growth of ineffective weapons in another, less direct, but perhaps more important way. Robert McNamara led the services toward the policy of “fixed force structure,” which meant there would be 13 aircraft carriers for the navy, 16 divisions for the army, and so on down the list. In each case, impartial analysis would determine how much was enough—and that was how much the services would have, for all the foreseeable future. The intention of fixed force structure was, somewhat naively, to set rational limits and keep the services from asking for the moon. The effect was to give them an irresistible incentive to buy only at the top of the line. When the navy knew it had 13 carriers, no more, no less, why shouldn’t it pack everything it could onto each carrier? From the services’ point of view, the only virtue of simpler, cheaper weapons (apart from the fact that they work) was that they could buy more of them. Fixed force structure denied them even that incentive.

Body Count

There was also a gap between the managerial approach and the real, human history of combat when it came to motivating and controlling men at war. Successful military commanders have understood that lies are built into news as it moves from the battlefield up the chain of command. Napoleon is supposed to have told subordinates that the only way to know for sure what was going on at the front was to “go look.” The great German tank tactician of World War II, General Hermann Balck, mused in a recent interview sponsored by Battelle Laboratories that he was irritated when his subordinates were rotated because he’d spent time learning the degree of lying to allow for in each one’s reports. However dubious the causes in which it served, the combat leadership of the German army must be regarded as the most consistently excellent military establishment in modern times. In his history of the German military leaders, A Genius for War, T.N. Dupuy points out that German generals devoted extraordinary efforts to finding ways of getting realistic, accurate, firsthand information from the field.

The German generals’ efforts were dictated not by the convenience of internal routine, but by the need to perform on the battlefield. Some of the most successful enterprises—businesses in their hungriest phase, successful political campaigns, public agencies in extraordinary periods like the early New Deal—manage to enforce the same insistence on external results. The vast majority do not. All that the typical government executive knows about his programs is what he reads in reports and computer print-outs from his subordinates. The typical business executive never goes to a branch office of his company and sees what the customer sees. That is why the first casualty in any large organization is realistic information from the field. It is far more convenient to know only the facts that are easy to measure and that reflect well on those in the chain of command. Therefore, while the human cost of this practice was far greater in Vietnam than in nonmilitary organizations, there was nothing atypical in the managerial techniques there. In his book, “Cincinnatus” says:

“Since progress could not be measured by such traditional yardsticks as miles gained or cities won or armies destroyed, both Secretary of Defense McNamara and the upper echelon of his military followers sought other ways to compute the relative advantage of the United States over its adversaries…. The ‘solution,’ acclaimed by both military and civilian parties, was to apply statistics to the battlefield: search for significant factors that would lend themselves to statistical manipulation; tabulate relative position semiannually, or monthly, or weekly, or daily, or hourly, then do it again and compare results with those previously determined.”

“Cincinnatus” quotes a paper prepared at the Army Command and General Staff College by Major William Lowry:

“Duplicity became so automatic that lower headquarters began to believe the things they were forwarding to higher headquarters. It was on paper; therefore, no matter what might have actually occurred, the paper graphs and charts became the ultimate reality.”

The culmination of this logic was the body count, of which “Cincinnatus” says:

“It has always been natural for one side in an armed conflict to estimate the number of casualties it has inflicted upon the other side. Not until Vietnam, however, did ‘estimated enemy casualties’ become an all-encompassing obsession of the army. The feverish pursuit of this talisman actually led to increased American losses, brought dishonor upon those who espoused the practice, and generally lessened the stature of the army within American opinion…. Officially it was U.S. policy to claim as enemy dead only those bodies that had actually fallen on a battleground and had been physically counted by an American commander. Any man who has ever been to war, particularly anyone who ever fought in Vietnam, knows that such a policy was impossible to implement or enforce and consequently was conducive to ‘estimates’ which could easily be falsified. Yet once entered on a report form, such estimates took on a reality of their own, transcending anything that might have actually happened. No matter how arrived at, the figures themselves became real.”

Grant’s Heirs

The desire to simplify and rationalize, and the pursuit of one-dimensional measures suggest the second major drawback of managerial defense. Its effect on military strategy is to reinforce a style of “attrition” warfare that has dominated American military practice since at least the Civil War but is at serious odds with the military reality of the 1980s.

Attrition is a toe-to-toe slugging match, in which each side assumes that the other will abide by predictable rules and that sheer weight of numbers and materiel will determine the outcome. Its equivalents in sports are tug-of-war contests, “demolition derbies”; its equivalent in nature is the sea wearing down the stones. It was the approach that all sides took during the trench warfare in World War I, and that the Allies followed to victory at the end of World War II, when the arsenal of democracy crushed its adversaries.

The purest operational description of attrition came from David Hack worth, a retired army colonel, as quoted in Stuart. Loory’s book, Defeated:

“I remember a German lieutenant captured at Salerno who I was guarding in 1946 in a prisoner of war camp. He was a real tough looking kraut and I was a young punk, a pimply faced kid. He could speak perfect English, and I was riding him. I said, ‘Well, if you’re so tough, and if you’re all supermen, how come you’re here captured and I’m guarding you?’

“And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, it’s like this. I was on this hill as a battery commander with six 88-millimeter antitank guns, and the Americans kept sending tanks down the road. We kept knocking them out. Every time they sent a tank, we knocked it out.

“‘Finally, we ran out of ammunition, and the Americans didn’t run out of tanks.’ ”

From Grant to Eisenhower, the United States has been the side that would never run out of tanks and didn’t need to worry about anything else. “We gin up the production lines and crush the enemy with steel safes,” says William Lind, a military historian who works on the staff of Senator Hart. But attrition also applied in Vietnam, through the search-and-destroy missions and the repeated attempts to draw the enemy into “decisive” battles, and there it failed. The reason has to do with an alternate view of conflict, and an alternate strategy known as “maneuver war.”

Maginot Mentality

The distinction between “attrition” and the “maneuver” approach might best be appreciated by comparing the French and the Germans before World War 11.

It is not generally known that on the eve of the war, the Germans had fewer tanks than the French and British forces stationed in France, and that the German tanks were more thinly armored and had less powerful guns. What the Germans did have was a new concept, introduced and implemented by General Heinz Guderian, of how to use their tanks to exploit the weaknesses in their enemy’s force.

The French spent roughly as much money as the Germans arming for the coming conflict, but the French spent much of it on the Maginot Line, which was effective only as long as the Germans chose to attack it frontally with massed, slow-moving infantry. The Germans spent their money on tanks and trucks they could use anywhere.

In systems of communications and command, the maneuver approach emphasizes setting a clear, central goal—overrun Poland; destroy the morale of American troops in Vietnam—but then allowing local teams and commanders the maximum leeway to seize whatever opportunities they see. Because of the profligate use of modern communications, the commanders of the failed American rescue missions to Iran and the Mayaguez both had to clear each minute tactical move by radio with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the other side of the globe.

In battlefield tactics, maneuver dictates an emphasis on deception, unpredictability, surprise. The British troops who were sent to put down the American revolution walked in serried ranks, wearing red. The Americans wore mufti and fired from behind trees. So did the Boers, for it took the British troops until the middle of the Boer War to learn the lesson of the American revolution. This is another illustration of the persistent ability of pure, abstract reason to resist evidence from real life.

In the first real book of military theory, The Art of War, written about 400 B.C., Sun Tzu said that of the ways to conquer an enemy, the most desirable was to destroy his mind, that is, his plans, his intentions, his view of the world. Next best was to disrupt his alliances—which make his own world stable, which provide the moral bonds to sustain his effort. Worse was to attack his armies, and worst of all to attack his cities. On the level of grand strategy, this is Russia being “defeated” in World War I by its own revolution. On the level of individual combatants, it shows up in the harrowing accounts of the panic that disables fighter pilots, long before their planes are shot down, when they realize in a dogfight that they are certain to be outmaneuvered and killed. Attrition does not account for these effects. It would reverse the order of Sun Tzu’s list.

Viewing the enemy as an integrated organism rather than an undifferentiated mass also suggests fundamentally different measures of success. For example, in attrition warfare, enemy dead are the most reliable indicator of progress. In a maneuver approach, enemy prisoners are a more telling indicator. Their capture suggests that the enemy has not been able to adapt to changing situations, that “friction” has overwhelmed him, that his internal systems of discipline and command have broken down.

Finally, maneuver also suggests a different view of one’s own vulnerability—which can be summed up as: an army (or nation, or weapon) is only as strong as it weakest link. If the opposing force is also an adaptable organism, it will probe for weaknesses and exploit them. At the beginning of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Russian soldiers rode in armored personnel carriers called BMPs. The BMPs had fuel tanks in the hollows of their doors. “How long do you think it took the Afghans to figure out that one shot in the door would send it into flames?” one defense analyst asks.

There was a time when American forces fought with maneuver principles—in the Revolutionary War. Since then, the American military heritage has been long on the Ulysses S. Grants, the champions of the crushing, ponderous attack, and short on the Stonewall Jacksons and Douglas MacArthurs and George S. Pattons, who made quick, unexpected end runs around enemy forces rather than attempting to ram them head-on.

Despite its failure in Vietnam, attrition remains embedded in current American military philosophy, kept in place by managerial logic. The army’s current field manual instructs officers on how to identify the “Forward Edge of the Battle Area,” a line that simply never existed in maneuver operations like the blitzkrieg or the Inchon invasion. It tells commanders of divisions in the field that:

“The chief mission of these forces must be to fight with sufficient strength and tenacity to force the enemy to disclose the size and direction of his main attack and buy time while defending forces concentrate in front of the main thrust… In mounted warfare, armored and mechanized elements [tanks and trucks] must be set in motion toward the battle positions in the path of the enemy thrust.”

The American air force and navy both pursue the ultimate in attrition warfare—deep “interdiction” bombing, far behind enemy lines. The navy does so under the label “power projection,” and designs its fleet to that end. (The Soviet navy, by contrast, is designed to sink the American navy.) Military historians may debate whether or not the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 had a “decisive” effect in that war. Apart from that special case, it is hard to make a serious argument that deep interdiction bombing far from the battlefield has ever had a significant military effect, except possibly to harden the will of the bombed civilian population to persevere. After World War II, the U.S Strategic Bombing Survey, a team on which John Kenneth Galbraith and George Ball worked alongside Paul Nitze, found virtually no correlation between how heavily different regions of Germany had been bombed and how much their morale or productivity had declined. Complex-weapons buffs often point out that the Thanh Hoa bridge in Vietnam was finally destroyed by a guided missile, after more than 50 planes had been lost in the effort. They rarely add that this technical achievement could not be converted into a strategic success because there was a ford just up the river. The military problem with day-in, day-out bombing is that people get used to it. The first time a city is bombed, people are shocked, trapped, caught in the open and killed. After that, they learn to anticipate, hide, survive. Bombing is effective under two circumstances: when used suddenly, in combination with other maneuver tactics that force armies to move and expose themselves; and in the special, hideous case of nuclear bombs.

“Wars of attrition worked in the past because of our phenomenal industrial base,” says Larry Smith, an assistant to Senator Gary Hart. “There was always time. The seas kept us separate. We could get the ‘arsenal of democracy’ running. We could gear up in time. I’m not sure that our industrial capacity has that self-evident surge capability now—especially for this different kind of production. You can change a farm truck line to one making military trucks by changing the paint job. Retooling Boeing to make fighter planes is a different story.”

Senator Hart himself said in 1980: “Our highly technical and specialized peacetime economy is not as easily and quickly converted to war production as it was in World War II. A Soviet invasion of Western Europe might prevail before we could surge to meet it—if it is fought in the traditional firepower/attrition manner.

“Maneuver warfare, on the other hand, could attack important Soviet weaknesses. Their command structure is highly centralized and cumbersome. Little discretion is permitted to unit commanders. The stresses in their ranks due to the fusion of divergent nationalities, the language barriers which often exist between a Russian officer corps and enlisted men of other nationalities, and the uncertain reliability of Warsaw Pact units—all suggest a vulnerability to a maneuver warfare designed to disable through disorientation.”

“The American national style of warfare remains unchanged,” Edward Luttwak has written. “It still presumes a net superiority in materiel, for it is a style based on the methods of attrition.” Luttwak’s point is not simply that attrition is a habit carried over from a day when the United States enjoyed a cushion of time and distance from foreign conflict and was endowed with an unparalleled resource base but also that the managerial approach to defense encourages an attrition strategy. Attrition, he says, is “war in the administrative manner … in which the important command decisions are in fact logistic decisions. The enemy is treated as a mere inventory of targets, and warfare is a matter of mustering superior resources….

“War in the attrition style has the great advantages of reliability [of results], of functional simplicity, and analytical predictability, and it is this that allows such great scope for the use of objective (‘systems analysis’) methods of evaluation and allocation decisions.” More precisely, he might have said that attrition gives the illusion of predictability and reliable results. The outcome of the war of attrition in Vietnam was anything but what its managers had predicted. Maneuver, by contrast, requires skill and daring on the part of the officers, and a willingness from their superiors to tolerate the risk of an occasional sloppy loss when the calculated risks don’t pay off.

Missing Intangibles

Eliot Cohen, in an article called “Systems Paralysis,” says that the simplistic, too typical approach to systems analysis discourages “the study of one’s opponents, his language, politics, culture, tactics, and leadership. The unit of analysis is the mission or the object: The enemy is therefore often regarded as a passive collection of targets. The attitude is that of an engineer building a bridge across a river, who does not for a moment think that the river will act deliberately in order to thwart him. Alternatively, systems analysis assumes that the enemy resembles us.”

As if in parody of the managerial approach to defense, one analyst wrote in a book about air power, published in 1974, that “waging war is no different in principle from any other resource transformation process, and should be just as eligible for the improvements in efficiency that have accrued elsewhere from technological substitution.”

The natural legacy of viewing war as a “resource transformation process” is an over-reliance on technology and an underemphasis on the intangibles of leadership and esprit.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.